Category Archives: Biotechnology

Mockingjay 1 and 2

Release dates: 2014 and 2015
Setting: 2100s+

  • Futurism — 7. The series gives some thought to the nature of social control and political power.
  • Plausibility — 7. The situations depicted are shown fairly plausibly; despite its origins in young-adult science fiction material, this series takes war more seriously than a lot of war movies.
  • Storytelling — 7-8. Relative realism keeps the story worth watching.

The United States as we know it is gone, transformed politically and culturally. It is unclear whether this was the result of a gradual evolution or some cataclysm, though the drastic results suggest the latter. The country is still suffering the effects of a civil war about 75 years before.

The background conditions for the “Hunger Games” series are disturbingly plausible:

Nuclear weapons will likely be joined by new menaces such as bioengineering, and nanotechnology could become a threat. International relations are more peaceful than they have been in the past, but great-power war is still possible, or the U.S. could be devastated by civil war.

As for authoritarianism, it is always a plausible outcome for destabilized, large-scale societies.

Weaponized biotech animals
Animals and insects engineered for combat — “muttations” — are some of the more creative elements of this series. They are increasingly possible, as our bioengineering capabilities rise, but somewhat unlikely, as they would tend to be difficult to use.
FatM-bioengineered insects

Note that the most dangerous animal in the world is currently the mosquito, which infects millions with disease, and mosquitoes are the most plausible insect target for weaponization. While mosquitoes could be made worse, plans are moving ahead to use biotech to de-weaponize the creatures.

In these movies, the Capitol deploys other muttations based on mammals and reptiles. Possibility and likelihood are somewhat similar to those for insects, at least for combat animals. For other purposes, genetic engineering of mammals is likely.

How Realistic Is “The Crazies”?

Popular Mechanics evaluated the science of The Crazies yesterday.

As PM describes it, “a genetically engineered toxin created by the military escapes into the water supply of idyllic Ogden Marsh, Iowa, transforming the town’s residents into a bloody, infected horde.”  In other words, it is a zombie movie.

The premise is not implausible: the filmmakers consulted the CDC and based the disease on tetanus, rabies, and Stevens-Johnson Syndrome.  With enough work, one probably could engineer a toxin that would short out behavioral control and induce rage.

As the virus spreads, the government takes drastic, Outbreak-style quarantine measures, sealing the town off.  While it would take a highly threatening disease to trigger this kind of action,  it is imaginable.  Quarantines have a legal basis, and a horrific, contagious disease might trigger a radical approach.

(Image copyright — usable with link and permission)

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My Genes Made Me Do It

brain_LizHenry_FlickrBradley Kreit of IFTF has a provocative piece on behavioral genetics.

A court in Italy has shortened the prison sentence of a convicted murderer due to the prisoner’s heightened genetic predisposition for violence, according to Nature News. Specifically, the appeals court judge held that because the prisoner had five genetic mutations linked to violent behavior, as well as brain scan abnormalities, “would make him particularly aggressive in stressful situations.”

Kreit notes that this suggests an overconfidence in our understanding of the relationship of genes and behavior.  He also notes the odd logic of this decision: an expert in the Nature news source “points out that prosecutors could use the same genetic evidence to argue for tougher sentences by suggesting people with such genes are inherently ‘bad’.”

The Italian court seems to be taking a common stance: that the mind — what we think of as a person — is separate from the brain and its underlying genome.  In this instance, they seem to be reasoning that the murderer is not evil, or fully responsible, because his behavior is hard-wired: he didn’t do it, his brain did.

The problem with this approach is that the mind is ultimately a product of the brain: all behavior has underlying physical shapers (though not, in most cases, determinants).  Everything good and bad that people have ever done was heavily shaped by brain chemistry and their genomes; it’s just that we have never been able to detect and measure the shapers in the past.

Now we can. We want to use this knowledge to help people, including those with “bad genes.”  But an explanation is not an excuse.  It does not mean that the we have to abandon our prior sense of right and wrong, or better or worse.   We will retain the right to say that something is evil, or good, even as we know more about how it came to be.

(Image courtesy Liz Henry, Flickr)

Your Biochemistry Is in Violation

no alcohol signIn many movies, totalitarian governments closely track banned behavior: in Demolition Man, for instance, people are automatically fined for public swearing.

We are already going a bit further in real life.  The Post reports that law enforcement in the US has begun to use tracking anklets which monitor the wearer’s sweat and detect any forbidden alcohol intake.

This application might be a good idea — it is a way to crack down on recidivist drunk drivers — but it also goes much farther than any totalitarian government has been able to in the past.   A wide variety of biochemical states could be monitored.

In The Sixth Day, smoking and red meat were banned, and this technology could be used to enforce that kind of rule.  It is not as implausible as it might sound: employers might want to check in on a variety of chemicals in their workers’ systems, and insurance companies might even want to verify that people really were entitled to that discount for not smoking or drinking too much.

(Image courtesy meddygarnet, Flickr)

Experimenting on Ourselves

Mutant fishThe Post reports that “intersex” fish have been found in rivers throughout North America.  In some species, a third of all the male fish were growing eggs.

The study did not look into causes, but the articles notes that “scientists suspect that man-made pollutants from factories, farms or sewage plants may be driving natural hormone systems haywire.”  These pollutants include a cocktail of pharmaceuticals, from birth control to mood-altering medications.

Beyond shemale fish, the real problem  is that whatever is in the water is likely getting into us as well, as the pharma problem affects many human water sources in the developed world.

This is one of the more likely paths to some global medical disaster like that in Children of Men, in which all women become sterile.  We are doing an experiment on ourselves on a mass basis; let’s hope the results aren’t too dire.